Don't worry, be happier | Dave Twentyman on anxiety in stand-up

Don't worry, be happier

Dave Twentyman on anxiety in stand-up

I've always been fascinated with the opinion expressed by many fellow comedians that fear and the resulting nerves are positive for performers.

I suffered terribly from nerves during the early part of my career. I would visibly shake and so I would often drink to excess to calm myself. On one occasion I even put the mic down halfway through my set and walked off stage. I self sabotaged many a gig through letting my nerves hijack me.

Psychology obviously plays a fundamental part of what we comics do. And I'm going to refer to the brilliant professor of psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Six-cent-Mihaly), a catchy name. Csikszentmihaly talks about being in a state called 'flow'. Some of us have different names for it, notably 'the zone' is the most common one.

Experienced circuit performers will obviously be more familiar with this state as it takes years of performing to reach it consistently, although obviously it is not going to happen at every single gig.

It's an amazing feeling being in flow. You are totally focussed and immersed in the moment. Your brain feels like it's working at 1,000,000mph yet you feel incredibly relaxed. You're literally having the time of your life doing something you enjoy and have become very good at.

Comics reading this who have experienced being in flow will know that as soon has they become consciously aware of it, they then slip out of that state. Almost like when you become aware that you are dreaming and you then wake up. You naturally try to get back into that state. It's very addictive.

Flow builds from a state of control and relaxation. When the challenge you face is tough i.e. A potentially rowdy gig, you can enter a state of flow. In this state you are probably the best you can be…

Going back to the subject of fear, and to be pedantic for a moment, fear is something we experience when we face a clear and present threat. Logical thinking goes out the window and we instinctively run, fight, freeze or flock. What we're really talking about here is anxiety. Anxiety is when we think about a perceived threat of a future event that may happen. We then experience symptoms of fear hence things like emotional hijacking/panic attacks.

We (unconsciously) try to deal with anxiety by worrying, which probably sounds strange. We think of lots of 'what if this happened' scenarios. Worrying helps comedians to avoid the real issue that would make us anxious.

What if they're sat too far from the stage? What if they're an older audience? What if they're all Tories? What if they're rowdy and they heckle etc etc… When the real issue is 'What if I'm a really shit act who just gets away with it every so often'?

Talking negatively albeit verbally or your internal dialogue reinforces the anxiety. Stifling your creativity

For a comedian, they are the worst possible emotions you want to experience when you're about to go on stage and obviously when you are actually on the stage.

A nervous, anxious act will struggle to emotionally link to the audience, which is especially counterproductive if part of your appeal is your warmth and friendliness.

You can tell the acts who are nervous. They are reluctant to come away from their script. When they have to deal with an audience member whom they deem to be disruptive, they may handle it by using a overly harsh putdown which leaves the rest of the audience baffled, wondering what had just happened.

If you're a comedian, next time you're stood waiting to go on stage, and your internal dialogue is peppering you with the awful 'what if' questions, consciously take charge and instead challenge them negative emotions with a positive internal and external dialogue, i.e. You deserve to be on that bill, performing in that venue. This is what you always wanted to do and you're good at it. Anticipate a positive mindset. Couple this with hard work, lots of gigging and lots of writing and you will start to experience 'flow' much more often.

Fear is a motor… but only a motor for poor performance and stifled creativity.

Dave Twentyman's website is davetwentyman.co.uk.

Published: 4 Sep 2015

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